Fair as a Star by Mimi Matthews

Fair as a Star by Mimi Matthews

Set in Somerset in 1864, Fair as a Star is the first in the Victorian Romantics series by Mimi Matthews. Newly returned from a mysterious trip to Paris with her aunt, Beryl Burnham tries to pick up her life where she left off. She is engaged to Sir Henry Rivenhall, in a marriage of convenience, but has always been good friends with his brother, Mark, who is curate in the local church.

No one knows why she left for France so suddenly, and local gossip was rife, but she has to come clean to Mark when he accidentally finds her weeping in a secluded spot by the river. She is suffering from depression (or melancholy as it was known then) and does not want anyone to know, partly because of the extreme treatments advocated by her previous doctor.

Mark is very understanding, and does not belittle what she is going through. As a curate, he is a good listener and this is just what she needs. He does not suggest cures for her melancholy, does not even see her as damaged. The message here is to accept others for who they are as individuals, and not try to make them all fit into the same mould.

This is a romance novel, and the ending is obvious from the start, but it is how Mimi Matthews achieves this end that makes it so readable. Sir Henry is very full of his own importance and thinks he knows best, but does not love Beryl. She realises her affections lie elsewhere and behaves in a very bold fashion.

I read this in one sitting, and thought it dealt very sensitively with the difficult subject of depression. It was not really understood back then, and a lot of strange, harmful beliefs and so-called ‘cures’ were commonplace. Medicine was a very male-dominated profession, and women faced both the patronising attitude of old-school male doctors, and the ludicrous treatments they prescribed.

The period detail is convincing, and the characters come across as well rounded individuals; my favourite was Beryl’s horse-mad sister, Winnifred, whose story will no doubt feature in a later book. I will certainly be looking out for the next book in the Victorian Romantics series.

Thanks to Mimi Matthews for a copy that I review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team #RBRT

The Plus One Pact by Portia Mackintosh

The Plus One Pact by Portia Macintosh

Having been on more than her fair share of awful dates, Cara Brooks decides to give up on dating apps, and that is when she meets Joe Mills. They make a pact to be each other’s ‘plus one’ to all the weddings and family gatherings they both have lined up over the summer – purely as friends.

The ‘pretend romance’ trope has been done many times before, but The Plus One Pact is definitely one of the better ones I’ve read. It all hinges on the likeability of the main characters; don’t expect the plot to be realistic – if you can imagine it as a rom-com, then the author has probably got the right idea.

The characters are well written and believable, even the horrible ones. For some reason, at every event they attend, Cara and Millsy seem to get into trouble. A lot of the humour lies in how they manage to get out of it unscathed.

The Leeds setting makes a pleasant change from London, and I also enjoyed the trip they took to Scotland to visit his Gran. The story moves along at a fast pace, from one event to the next, that will keep you reading far into the night. I will definitely be on the lookout for more books by Portia Mackintosh.  

Draca by Geoffrey Gudgion

Draca by Geoffrey Gudgion

Draca is a wonderful tale that combines many different elements and weaves them together to make a satisfying story; not an easy book to categorize so it will have wide appeal. I started reading Draca on the Pigeonhole app and got so engrossed, I requested it from Rosie’s Book Review Team list as well.

Jack is a former officer in the Royal Marines with PTSD, and a life-altering injury, trying to get his life back on an even keel. He was close to his grandfather, Eddie, who has recently died and left most of his estate to Jack. To say this does not go down well with Jack’s father, Harry, and his sister, Tilly, would be an understatement. Their mercenary attitude and sense of entitlement beggars belief especially as they had not cared much about Eddie when he was alive.

Add to this Jack’s faltering marriage to Charlotte, the rift between him and his family, and his embryonic relationship with George and you have the makings of a real page-turner. Told in the third person from the points of view of Jack, Harry and George we can see the story from all angles.

Interspersed with the narrative are extracts from Eddie’s diaries and the Norse Saga of King Guthrum which help to explain Eddie’s weird behaviour in the months before his death. The history of the Saxons and Vikings is not something I know much about, but I am now interested in finding out more. The supernatural element is done with a light touch and seemed perfectly plausible; at times Draca does seem to be a malign influence with a mind of her own.    

I loved reading about the sailing without actually having to get on a boat – it’s not something I would ever be brave enough to do, especially as I get really seasick. I don’t think it matters if you understand sailing terminology or not, when Jack takes the vintage sailing cutter out on the open sea, the writing is thrilling and you can almost feel the spray on your face.

This is not the sort of book I would normally read, but I’m so glad I did. Beautifully written and well researched, with fully fleshed out characters, some sympathetic and others not, I thoroughly recommend that you give Draca a try.    

Thanks to Geoffrey Gudgion and Unbound for a copy that I review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team #RBRT

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

We are introduced to Shuggie Bain in 1992, living in a grotty bedsit, while he’s working on the deli counter in a supermarket, and still attending school when he can fit it in around his shifts; he needs the money to pay his rent. Then the narrative jumps back to 1981 and we learn how he ended up in such dire circumstances.

Reader, she should never have married him. Finding her life married to the ‘good Catholic’ not exciting enough, Agnes leaves him for Shug Bain, a womanising Protestant taxi driver, who does not stay faithful or make any effort to hide his indiscretions. It is hard to see the attraction. Understandably, Agnes’s drink problem just gets worse. The Bain family have been living with her parents on the sixteenth floor of a tower block in Sighthill, but it is far from ideal. Shug promises her a house with its own front door, but when she sees the house in Pithead, a former mining community devastated by the Thatcher years, and realizes that Shug does not intend to stay with her, she understands that she has been tricked.

Although the book title is Shuggie Bain, it is really about his mother, Agnes, and her battle with alcohol addiction. Disappointed at how her life has turned out, the dreams of a better future in tatters, she relies more and more on alcohol just to get her through the day. There is no condemnation in this portrait of a woman who has reached rock bottom, but first-hand experience of the pain and degradation of loving someone whose only thought is where their next drink is coming from.

Neither Shuggie nor Agnes really fit in. Even at her worst, Agnes still liked to dress up and put on a good front.  Shuggie does not conform to the normal definition of masculinity in Glasgow in the 1980s. He is described as ‘no right’, and is very much alone because of this, easy prey for bullies and predators alike.

This is not just another story of a child neglected by an alcoholic mother. It is also the portrait of a city robbed of its industry and its pride, due to the destructive policies of the heartless Thatcher government. Shuggie’s love for Agnes, and forlorn hope that she will get better, shines through, and we are left hoping that he will be able to overcome his upbringing and make a life for himself. I hope that Douglas Stuart will continue writing Shuggie’s story in the future.

Halfway through reading Shuggie Bain I learned it had been longlisted for the Booker prize; and deservedly so. I don’t know if it will win, but it stands a good chance and I will keep my fingers crossed. These characters are so well drawn they will stay with you long after you have finished reading. It paints an accurate picture of Glasgow in the late 1970s and 1980s. The dialogue is authentic (I grew up in this part of the world) but not so broad it would be a problem for non-Scots. At times it will break your heart, as it deals with some very tough subject matter, but the quality of the writing lifts it to another level. I look forward to reading Douglas Stuart’s next book.

Thanks to Picador and NetGalley for a review copy.

The Summer of Taking Chances by Lynne Shelby

The Summer of Taking Chances by Lynne Shelby

Emma is looking forward to playing Juliet in the local amateur dramatic society production when Jake Murray arrives back in South Quay for the summer, ten years after he left to go to drama school, and thoroughly unsettles her. Now a household name, thanks to his role in a successful TV series, he’s taking the summer off, away from the media spotlight, and catching up with his old school friends.

At the beginning of The Summer of Taking Chances, Jake comes across as a bit arrogant and full of himself; not very likeable really. But we get to see him through Emma’s eyes, and it’s obvious they have history. It was Emma who first got Jake interested in acting at the school drama club. As the story is told from Emma’s point of view, their previous relationship is gradually revealed in a series of flashbacks, and it becomes clear both what he means to her and why she does not entirely trust him now.

The pace is quite slow to begin with as the scene is set, and we are introduced to all the members of the dramatic society. At one point, about halfway through, it looked as if the inevitable happy ending was not possible. From here on it was fascinating reading how Lynne Shelby made it happen in a believable and natural way.

Both the main characters change for the better by the end of the book, and overcome the obstacles in their path. Jake’s love of the theatre is reignited, as being back where he grew up helps him remember why he loved acting in the first place. Emma comes to see that she gave up on her dream too easily, and that it’s not too late to do something about it.

Most of the action takes place in South Quay, but I enjoyed reading about their trip to London for the opening night of the musical starring Jake’s friends Zac and Julia (from Lynne’s previous book There She Goes). The walks they took along the canal showed a different, and more interesting, part of London than the usual tourist spots.

This is the third book by Lynne Shelby that I have read, and it does not disappoint. I loved the dialogue between Jake and Emma, where they quote Shakespeare to each other, and the idyllic coastal village setting. The characters are well written and believable, and the eye-catching cover art should ensure the book reaches a wide audience.

I am reviewing The Summer of Taking Chances as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team #RBRT

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